Friday, January 8, 2010

John Stossel on Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, and Fish Pedicures

What would happen if the most productive members of society went on strike?

Did you set your Tivo to record Stossel last night? No? Even though it was the segment devoted to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged?
You didn't watch it, even though Atlas Shrugged is 50 years old, a thousand pages long, but recently hit #15 on's fiction bestseller list?
You didn't watch John Stossel and a host of guests critique the Washington D.C. Community Theatre production of the novel? The one adapted for the stage by Barney Frank and Tiny Timmy Geithner?

(Heavy sigh that can be heard by regulators in the basement of Bernanke's Federal Reserve building way over in Dallas....)
At great personal sacrifice, I watched Stossel instead of watching Alabama's Crimson Tide defeat the Texas Longhorns.

Here goes: Stossel's first guest was a banker named John Allison. Allison is a Rand fan, to say the least, and is chairman of BT&T, a North Carolina bank that he grew from nothing into something enormous, largely by avoiding financial gimmicks. Here's what the New York Times has to say about Mr. Allison:

....(Allison) also has a résumé befitting a Rand prophet. He started at BB&T, once known as the Branch Banking and Trust Company, in 1971 and became chief executive in 1989, when the bank had $4.7 billion in assets.
By the time he retired as C.E.O. in December, he had overseen 60 bank and savings-institution acquisitions and turned BB&T into the 11th-largest bank in the nation, with $152 billion in assets, according to the bank.
A 60-year-old who speaks in a rapid-fire Southern accent, Mr. Allison says the current financial crisis is primarily the government’s fault. He criticizes the Fed as trying to manipulate normal business cycles and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as facilitating mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them.
The government’s remedies have made matters only worse, he says: “Almost everything that has been done since this crisis started is going to reduce our long-term standard of living.”
Mr. Allison says the government forced BB&T and some other healthy banks to accept TARP money to obscure that they were simply trying to save several large banks like Citigroup.
“Everyone thinks we got some kind of subsidy,” he says, noting that his company paid the money back in June, with interest. “It’s going to cost us about $250 million for money we didn’t want.”
Allison spent some time trying to distinguish between enlightened self-interest and Ayn's preferred "shock value" term, selfishness. He mentioned that one of the ways this manifests itself in his company is their refusal to loan money in eminent domain projects, and "pick a payment" loans (AKA negative amortization gimmicks. Hit the NYT link above for details.) According to Allison, eminent domain is a threat to property rights, and therefore a threat to our economic system. Negative amortization loans are almost guaranteed to fail.
Neither of these is a win/win situation for the bank/client relationship. Allison says it's in his bank's self-interest to avoid either of these situations for a mere short-term profit.
The topic briefly switched over to government-run schools, and the lack of competition in that system. Here's one of my favorite Allison lines:

"We (at the bank) don't really like being innovative. We're forced to be innovative by the market. But if you have a government-run monolith, it is not going to be innovative, it is not going to be creative."
The next guest was C. Bradley Thompson of Clemson University, who drew some parallels between one of Rand's more bizarre scenes and the incident last fall when Hank Paulson called six bankers into his office and demanded that they take TARP money. Then Thompson and Stossel spent a few minutes playing the Stunt Casting game. Who is Dagney Taggart today? Who is Wesley Mouch? Who is John Galt?

Next up was Yaron Brook, president of The Ayn Rand Institute, who had a great time ridiculing the idea of the United States Of America having a Compensation Czar and a Regulatory Czar. Brook and Thompson discussed the perverse case of General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, who spends about $20,000,000.00 on lobbying for regulations that will restrict competition within G.E.'s core businesses. Immelt has also seen the light and is a big-time proponent of Cap And Trade.
What's in all this for Immelt and G.E.? They gets millions in federal loan guarantees and grants. It's a beautiful system, and everyone is sure there's no Quid Pro Quo involved.

The questions from the audience began with Rand's personal life, which was, as they say, complicated. (Most of what I know about her personal life comes from watching The Passion Of Ayn Rand on DVD a few months ago. Here's a video from the film set to music by Justin Timberlake. Swear to God. I love the internet.)

I'm not a follower of Objectivism, the name Rand gave her philosophy. But let's indulge in an Et Tu argument for a moment.....
Karl Marx developed what his followers say is the most fair, equitable, and humane economic system ever imagined. But he shamefully neglected his own family, and got the housecleaner pregnant.
Look at the public teachings of Jesus, as compared to the constant rebukes he always gave his closest disciples in private.
Most of us have some serious gaps between our spoken principles vs. how we spend our day. Barack Obama, Lord and Savior of us all, for instance. Compare his soaring rhetoric to how he has thrown Greg Craig, Yosi Sergant, Anita Dunn and Van Jones under the bus.

One audience member brought up the question that Libertarians always have to answer: Don't we need some government? John Allison answered first. Government is important. There has to be a system in place to protect individual rights - i.e., a defense system, and a law enforcement system. I don't think anyone mentioned roads, which usually rounds out the minimalist government trifecta.

This question was followed by a first on the Stossel program. A woman got up and ranted about the negative impact of taxes and regulations on small businesses and entrepreneurs (Doh !). She didn't really ask a question. She didn't challenge anything previously said by the panelists. I hope Stossel avoids this type of interchange in the future, because every question from the audience on previous programs was from someone who disagreed with the guest. There's something to be said for limiting the conversation to hostile questions, not Oprah-style softballs.

The conversation almost, but not quite, got into something that I've never heard discussed on television. You know how Obama/Pelosi/Reid talk about Big Business as if it sprang forth from a gaping hole in the lid of hell? But small business is worthy of tax breaks, regulatory slack, plus flowers and back massages on major holidays?
There is no difference. Businesses don't pay taxes, people do. The money paid via business taxes is money taken from the employees of a business. Giving a tax break to the #3 and #4 guys at a small business, while witholding the tax break from the janitor at a mega-business, doesn't make much sense. But it makes us feel good.

Next up was the editor of Reason magazine, Nick Gillespie, in his trademark black leather jacket. (I'm friends with Nick on Facebook - he only has 1,527 other friends, so I'm understandably proud.) He and Stossel were shown getting something called a Fish Pedicure. You stick your feet in a water tank, and little guppies eat the dead skin off your tootsies. Very popular in Asia. (These fish were provided by Mr. John Ho, a Virginia entrepreneur who has almost been regulated out of existence by Nanny State Munchkins.)

I don't think the Libertarian Party has an official position statement on fish pedicures, so I'd like to propose one. "If I want to pay someone to allow his fish to nibble away my callouses and bunions, it's none of the government's business."

The very existence of a growing fish pedicure industry is enough to drive the cosmetology regulators totally apeshit. Stossel brought in a New York state legislator Jeffrey Klein (shown via satellite, because he was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a conference). Mr. Klein says that fish pedicures are "dirty, dangerous, and mean to the fish", and he wants to outlaw the practice. Under intense cross-examination, Klein admitted that no one has ever been harmed by a fish pedicure. Klein tried to say that there had been a lot of complaints. Stossel claimed that he'd looked for evidence of complaints and couldn't find any.

And then, it happened. After decades of TV studio audiences mindlessly applauding every regulatory bureaucrat, politician, troll, and hobbit who wants to regulate the _____ industry, Stossel said "Aren't you just a busybody, taking away other people's freedom?"

The audience started applauding. They cheered. They made the same noises that idiots used to make when Bill Clinton said he was going to do something FOR THE CHILDREN® . A living, breathing group of people, on television, actually got the point. They weren't huddled in a dark corner of a bar for a libertarian meetup. They weren't in Ayn Rand Objectivist chatrooms. They were on my television, with a viewing audience that probably numbered in the high 5 digits, and they almost hooted Jeffrey Klein off the screen.

Gillespie: "We're at a point in history where people are wealthier, relatively speaking, and more educated and more in charge of their lives across more different dimensions, and now we're having government come in, and people like New York state legislators, who cannot balance their budgets, who are billions of dollars in debt, who are telling us 'leave the little fish alone'. This is wrong. It's not their business. And it shouldn't be their business to regulate other businesses. Especially now."

It was a great conversation between Gillespie and Stossel, made slightly ridiculous by the cameraman occasionally pulling back and showing that they both had their feet in a fish tank with minnows nibbling their toenails.

There were more questions for Gillespie about motorcycle helmets. cell phone use while driving, and a few other topics. FoxBusiness will probably run this feature 3 or 4 more times before next week. You still have time to catch it. Here's the closing monologue. If the Lou Dobbs clip doesn't make you want to smash your fist through your computer screen, you need to cut back your valium dosage.

John Stossel. Ayn Rand. Capitalism. Atlas Shrugged. Nick Gillespie. A government regulator getting hammered. It was some great television. Better than watching the U.T. Longhorns get hammered, anyway.


Clay Barham said...

We can turn our economy around, but it will be tough sledding. A new book is due out on that tells how we became the most prosperous nation in the world. It is called SAVE PEBBLE DROPPERS & PROSPERITY. You’ll find it on It points out why prosperity comes only from individual freedom. The economy will never recover as long as government strangles small business and start-ups in gear and in dreams. The jobs are found in the small, private sector created by pebble droppers, entrepreneurs with vision and a belief government will not interfere. Obama’s mercantilism is a virus.

Fester said...

I finally got around to watching the show last night, it had been sitting on the DVR a couple of days. The show was one of the best so far. I am not a fan of Objectivism anymore. I used to be an fan and I would have at least considered myself an Objectivist sympathizer, but the split between libertarians and Objectivists over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (many prominent Objectivists were pro-war) turned me off of it entirely. However they spent less time talking about Rand than I was expecting and more time with the Nanny state stuff, this is the kind of stuff I like, so that is what made the show for me. I agree with rand about rational self interest, but in order to really get it you have to really think about it for some time and the liberals in the audience obviously were not planning to give it the amount of thought needed to grasp the idea if they thought it meant that someone should not save a drowning person. That is a laughable assertion. To the objectivist the drowning man should be saved, but not at your own expense. So objectivists would try and save the man, they simply would not sacrifice themselves in the process.

I will probably write a review of the show today on my blog.

Deb said...

Atlas Shrugged is my favorite all time book. While I have not studied Objectivism in depth, to me the concept of rational self interest is a simple one. Unfortunately, the second handers can and do evade its message. But you can't fault them when all they have to do is whine and our paternal government will come to their rescue at my expense! As to Objectivists being pro war, I do not agree that this statement is correct. Objectivists are consistant in asserting the protection of an individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness whether it is the life of Simon Rushdie or an American owned Business permitted by the Chinese governement to do business in that country. Objectivists have clearly and consistently said that the loss of American life in Iraq is a travisty especially since our government has no idea what the end result of winning a war in Iraq or any country should be. Claiming that a war is won by showing that the citizens now have the right to vote is laughable when clearly that "right" is not upheld and not protected when it takes armed guards to ensure the safety of those that attempt to vote. After they have voted the world they live in continues to disregard the concepts of the right of free speach and the protection of life and property.

Douglas said...

It is only with abstract principles that a social system may properly be concerned. A social system cannot force a particular good on a man nor can it force him to seek the good: it can only maintain conditions of existence which leave him free to seek it. A government cannot live a man's life, it can only protect his freedom. It cannot prescribe concretes, it cannot tell a man how to work, what to produce, what to buy, what to say, what to write, what values to seek, what form of happiness to pursue—it can only uphold the principle of his right to make such choices. It is in this sense that "the common good" lies not in what men do when they are free, but in the fact that they are free. (emphasis added)
--Ayn Rand, “From My ‘Future’ File,” The Ayn Rand Letter

Term Papers said...

I don't think anyone mentioned roads, which usually rounds out the minimalist government trifecta.